How to Read the Visa Bulletin

If you or your spouse is a green card holder and you’re planning on applying for a marriage-based green card, you’ve probably heard about the visa bulletin

The visa bulletin is issued every month by the Department of State. It shows which green card applications can move forward, based on when the I-130 petition that starts the green card process was originally filed. It also lets you estimate how long it will take before you will be able to get your green card, based on how quickly the “line” is moving now. Once your I-130 petition has been filed, you’ll be able to check the visa bulletin and watch your place in line move forward. 

Everything you need to know about the visa bulletin is explained below, but here’s the bottom line for family members seeking green cards:

  • If you’re the spouse, parent, or unmarried child (under age 21) of a U.S. citizen, you don’t even need to read the visa bulletin—there’s no green card backlog or wait time for you!
  • If you’re the spouse or unmarried child (under age 21) of a U.S. green card holder, you’ll have to wait extra 12-18 months for your green card to become available. 
  • If you’re in a different category, your green card wait time may vary—from years to decades.

(For more details, see our guide on How Long Does It Take to Get a Marriage-Based Green Card?)

Green Card Backlogs and the Visa Bulletin

The visa bulletin exists because Congress caps the number of green cards that can be issued each year. The number of people who are seeking green cards has consistently exceeded this annual limit, creating a backlog—in fact, several backlogs. 

There are currently 366,000 green cards available annually, but that total is broken down into a complex category system, with a specific quota for each category. The two broadest categories are family-based green cards (226,000), which include marriage-based green cards, and employment-based green cards (140,000). 

In addition to setting an overall limit on the number of green cards that can be issued per year, Congress also limits the number of available green cards based on country of origin. Under this annual “country cap,” no single country of origin can account for more than 7% of the green cards in any particular category. 

That’s no big deal for a country like, say, Belgium (population 11 million)—in fact, no European or African countries generate enough green card demand to bump up against the country cap. But there are substantial backlogs facing the many green card seekers from China (population 1.4 billion), India (population 1.3 billion), Mexico (population 129 million), and the Philippines (population 105 million).

Breaking Down the Visa Bulletin

The caps on family-based green cards are broken down into four primary “preference categories”: 

F1 (first preference): Unmarried adults (age 21 and over) who are children of U.S. citizens. The cap for this category is 23,400 green cards per year. 

F2 (second preference): Spouses and unmarried children of green card holders. The overall cap for this category is 114,200 green cards per year, but it’s split into two sub-categories:
    

  • F2A: Spouses and unmarried minor children (under age 21) of green card holders. If you are a green card holder who has applied for a green card for your spouse, this is the category you’ll need to watch when you check the visa bulletin. 77% of the second category quota goes towards this F2A sub-category (that’s 87,934 green cards per year).
  • F2B: Unmarried adult children (age 21 and over) of green card holders. 23% of the second category quota goes towards this F2B sub-category (that’s 26,266 green cards per year).

F3 (third preference): Married children of U.S. citizens, regardless of age. The cap for this category is 23,400 green cards per year. 

F4 (fourth preference): Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens. The cap for this category is 65,000 green cards per year.

What Makes the F2A Category Special?

If you look at the visa bulletin, you’ll notice that the wait for a green card is much shorter for the F2A category than it is for any other family-based preference category. That is good news if you’re the spouse of a U.S. green card holder!

There are two reasons that this category moves the fastest. First of all, it has the largest quota, at 87,934 green cards. In addition, 75% of the green cards within the F2A category are exempt from that country cap described above. So the country of origin for a spouse seeking a green card is much less important than for a green card applicant in another category.  


What About Spouses of U.S. Citizens?

There is no cap on the number of green cards available for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, defined as spouses, parents, and unmarried minor children (under age 21). Since there is no annual limit, there is no backlog, no line to wait in, and nothing to see in the visa bulletin. Spouses of U.S. citizens can apply for a green card as soon as their I-130 petition is approved.


Reading the Visa Bulletin

Important Terms 

  • Priority date: This is the date that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received your I-130 petition. Think of this date as your place in the green card line. You can find your priority date on the I-797 form mailed by USCIS approving your I-130 petition.
  • Current: In the context of the visa bulletin, “current” means no backlog and no wait time for a green card. A particular priority date becomes “current” once it reaches the front of the line and a green card is available. Or an entire preference category can be “current” if there’s no backlog and no wait time within that category. 
  • Chargeability area: This is the green card applicant’s country of birth. (Remember the country cap? Your own green card will be “charged” toward the annual quota of green cards available to citizens of your country of birth.) 
  • Immediate relative: A spouse, parent, or child (under age 21) of a U.S. citizen. 
  • Cut-off date: The dates you see on the visa bulletin tables are called “cut-off dates.” Think of this date as the front of the green card line. Green card applicants with priority dates prior to the cut-off date can submit their green card applications. Green card applicants with priority dates after the cut-off date have to keep waiting.

Section A: Final Action Dates

The “final action dates” chart shows which priority dates have reached the front of the line. These green card applications are ready for approval right now.

Section B: Dates For Filing

The “dates for filing” chart shows which green card applicants who are living outside of the United States should go ahead and submit their application with the National Visa Center (NVC)—even though a green card is not ready just yet. The cut-off dates in the “dates for filing” chart are slightly later (1-10 months) than those in the “final action dates” chart, which allows green card applicants to file their applications that much sooner.

The “dates for filing” chart is primarily directed at people who will be applying for a green card from outside the United States, but USCIS publishes a page called “when to file your adjustment of status application” every month that indicates whether green card applicants living in the United States can submit their green card application based on the visa bulletin’s “dates for filing” chart or whether they need to wait to meet the dates in the “final action dates” chart. 

Why Do These Different Dates Matter?

For green card applicants living outside the United States, the “dates for filing” chart allows you to get an early start on assembling and submitting all the required documents to the National Visa Center (NVC). This sets the ball rolling, and ensures that the NVC has everything ready once your priority date appears in the “final action dates” chart and a green card is available to you.

For green card applicants living in the United States, the “dates for filing” chart opens the door to additional benefits. That’s because when filing a green card application with USCIS (technically an I-485 form for “adjustment of status”), you can simultaneously apply for a work permit (employment authorization document) and travel permit (advance parole document). For applicants who intend to work in the United States or travel outside the United States while waiting for their green card applications to be processed, these additional benefits can be invaluable.


Country-Specific Columns

You’ll notice that the visa bulletin has separate columns for China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines. The wait time for a green card is often longer—and sometimes much longer—for citizens of these four countries, because their annual demand for green cards exceeds the 7% “country cap” described above. This means that practically speaking, there are separate backlogs and green card lines for each of these four countries, which also vary by green card category.

Remember, however, that the F2A category is special? You’ll notice that the wait for a green card for spouses of U.S. green card holders is generally about the same regardless of the country of origin, because most green card applications in this category are exempt from the country cap. That means spouses from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines only have to wait a few extra weeks (if at all) for their green cards—compared with years or even more than a decade for other relatives from these countries.


What is Retrogression?

Usually the visa bulletin’s cut-off dates move forward over time, pushing green card seekers ahead in line...but not always. When there are more applications for a green card category in a given month than USCIS or the State Department was expecting, the cut-off dates for the subsequent month might move backwards. This is called a “visa retrogression,” and it’s most common around September (the end of the government’s fiscal year).

Sometimes the visa bulletin will provide advance warning of an upcoming retrogression, giving green card applicants some time to prepare. But sometimes the visa bulletin announces a completely unexpected visa retrogression, which is an unpleasant surprise for applicants who were expecting to move forward in line, not backward. That’s why it is a good idea to prepare all the documents needed for your green card application ahead of time, and be ready to file as quickly as possible once the visa bulletin shows that a green card is available to you. By failing to file in a month when a green card is available, you risk facing a surprise retrogression in the next visa bulletin, which would close your window of opportunity for filing a green card application.

If you’ve already filed your green card application and there’s a visa retrogression, USCIS or the State Department will hold your application until you get back to the front of the line. You don’t need to do anything other than ensure that your contact information is up to date. 

If you haven’t yet filed your green card application and there’s a visa retrogression, the result is the same—you’ll have to wait until you get back to the front of the line before filing.  (Or, to use the visa bulletin’s terms, until your priority date becomes current again.)

Want to learn more about what’s happening with green card backlogs and wait times? Every month, Boundless releases visa bulletin explainers that demystify this process and show trends over time.

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